Civil rights organization and Linn County auditor agree new ballot request law goes too far

Published: Jul. 15, 2020 at 12:12 AM CDT
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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG) - Linn County Auditor Joel Miller and leaders of LULAC Iowa, the League of United Latin American Citizens, share the same belief: voting shouldn’t be hard to do.

“Voting should be simple,” Miller said.

“As Iowans, our primary concern should be, how do we make voting easier?” Jazmin Newton, LULAC Iowa’s deputy state director, echoed.

They also share the same belief that a new state law will do the exact opposite.

In June, the state legislature passed HF 2643, a lengthy piece of legislation primarily relating to state and local finances. Near the end of the law, however, is a division which eliminates county auditors’ abilities to fill in missing information from an incomplete absentee ballot request form.

Previously, this was something auditor’s offices could, and did, do, using the information available to them in the state’s voter registration database. Now, the auditor’s office will need to attempt to contact the voter by phone, email, or mail within 24 hours of the request being received to inform them of the missing information, and then the voter themselves will have to fill it in. The law prohibits auditors from using the voter registration database to obtain this information.

“The law in itself is overly burdensome, under normal circumstances, so it is even more true under the circumstance we see today, where we’re in the middle of a global pandemic,” Newton said.

LULAC Iowa announced Tuesday that it is suing the state, specifically Secretary of State Paul Pate, to overturn this law, which, it says, “makes absentee voting in Iowa more complicated, cumbersome, confusing, expensive, and time-consuming for both voters and election officials.” LULAC Iowa and Majority Forward, a nonprofit organization that promotes participation in the electoral process, filed the lawsuit in Johnson County, seeking a temporary injunction ahead of the November general election, followed by a permanent injunction.

LULAC Iowa Political Director Joe Henry said the law could stop auditors from sending ballots to Iowans who want them.

“If that happens, there will be tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands of voters who will not receive a ballot on Election Day or before Election Day to vote,” Henry said. “This will cause chaos.”

The organization said it can be difficult for auditors to get in touch with voters about correcting or completing their forms.

“Not everyone lists their email or their phone number, so the county auditor doesn’t have that accurate information for all registered voters,” Newton said.

Miller confirmed that lack of information, reporting that out of about 155,000 registered voters in his county, his office only has about 9,000 email addresses and 56,000 phone numbers on file.

Miller said the problem will become more complicated because people may need to know their four-digit Voter PIN, which they can only find on their Voter Identification Card, to request an absentee ballot.

“People don’t know what it is, so they put in the last four of their Social Security Number,” Miller said. “They make up a number. They put in their bank PIN, ATM card number. They just think up numbers out of thin air and drop them in there, and that disqualifies that absentee ballot request form.”

Because of this, Miller’s office plans to prepopulate voters’ information, including their Voter PINs, into their respective forms before it mails absentee ballot request forms to every registered voter in Linn County.

“We don’t need to make the voters jump through hoops in order to vote,” Miller said. “We already know this information.”

The Secretary of State’s office claims Miller can’t do this, saying his action would violate the part of Iowa Code that protects confidential records, including Voter PINs.

It also points out that voters can request their ID numbers from their county auditor or fill in their driver’s license number on the request form instead of the Voter PIN. Miller, however, said some voters are hesitant to write their license numbers because of identity theft fears.

In a statement sent to KCRG-TV9, Secretary of State Paul Pate said, “I full support county auditors making absentee ballot request forms easily available to every eligible citizen, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. They should also do everything possible to protect election integrity and instill Iowans with confidence that absentee voting is safe and secure.

“In stark contrast to these goals, pre-filling absentee ballot request forms with voters’ personal identifying information gives critics of absentee voting an opportunity to question the validity of election results in those counties,” Pate continued. “Iowa courts have already ruled that Voter ID is acceptable and constitutional, both at the polls and on absentee ballot requests.”

Miller argued he isn’t breaking the law.

“It says that confidential information can be released by the custodian. I’m a custodian of that record. I am choosing to release that information to you via first-class mail in a sealed envelope,” Miller said. “I’m releasing it to that specific voter who already has been assigned that PIN but has no idea what that number is.”

Meanwhile, LULAC Iowa leaders worry headaches from the new law could leave a bad impression on voters, many of whom are expected to vote by mail this November.

“If their vote isn’t counted, if there’s any problem with that process, they will be discouraged from voting in the future,” Nilvia Reyes Rodríguez, LULAC Waterloo president, said.

Like Miller, the auditors of Johnson, Black Hawk, and Dubuque counties also plan to send absentee ballot request forms to all registered voters.

Johnson County Auditor Travis Weipert said he too will pre-fill Voter PINs on their request forms before his office sends them out.

The auditors in Black Hawk and Dubuque counties say they do not plan to do this.

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